THIS IS THE JOHNNY CUETO FOR WHOM THE ROYALS TRADED. Cueto retired 19 straight batters en route to an amazing pitching performance that was this | | far from something ...perfect. The strike zone looked a little squeezed on the corners and expanded low, but it didn't matter for Cueto. Except for one pitch, he stymied the Astros through eight wonderful innings. Cueto finished with zero walks and eight strikeouts.
Despite Cueto's dominance, the game began like many of the others of this series - the Astros scored first. Evan Gattis came up to bat with two outs in the second inning. He hit a grounder down the third base line; it was kind of a tough play for Mike Moustakas. Nevertheless, Moose made the play with the glove. He set his feet but still looked a little unbalanced. His throw sailed wide of first base, but Eric Hosmer still caught the ball and had a chance to make the tag. The ball flew out of Hosmer's glove instead as he whirled to make the tag. Luis Valbuena took Cueto deep on the next pitch, which wasn't really a bad pitch. Valbuena just put a good swing on it. Like with the Rangers earlier today, a defensive miscue led to runs. These two items I have mentioned here are the only two items worth mentioning for the Astros hitters.
On the Royals side, there was intense aggressiveness at the plate early in the game. McHugh mowed down hitters because of their aggressiveness; the only two batters in the early innings to reach base for the Royals were erased by way of the double play.
That ended in the fourth inning. Lorenzo Cain reached first on a check-swing flare to right field, which brought up Eric Hosmer. After a lengthy at-bat, which saw a full count, Hosmer lifted a little flare to shallow center field. Cain was running on the pitch and just never stopped running. Gomez slipped upon fielding the ball, so Cain scored without any resistance. Kendrys Morales and Moustakas could do nothing with their opportunities, so only one run scored in the inning.
The Royals went right back after McHugh in the fifth inning. Salvador Perez did a pretty decent job of laying off the terrible pitches at which he might normally swing and was eventually hit near his elbow by a curveball that got away from McHugh. Alex Gordon got down in the count 0-2, but he worked it full and slammed a ground-rule double (or rule book double) to right field. The Astros brought in Mike Fiers to replace McHugh at this point.
With runners on second and third and no outs, Alex Rios came up to bat. Rios punched a ground ball just barely fair over the third-base bag. Both Perez and Gordon scored for the Royals to take the lead. Alcides Escobar followed with a sacrifice bunt to move Rios to third, and Zobrist brought in Rios with a fly ball to right-center field. Cain grounded out to end the inning, but the damage was done.
Cueto continued to deal. It seemed like THE Royals were back in the sixth inning. Cueto induced three popups, and three players (Escobar, Gordon, and Zobrist) all made catches ranging from difficult to kind of difficult. Zobrist continued the defensive clinic in the seventh inning with a leaping over-the-shoulder catch on a weak flare from Carlos Correa.
Not wanting to go down without a fight, the Astros brought in Dallas Keuchel to pitch the eighth inning. Escobar led off with a double just barely fair down the first base line, and Cain was intentionally walked after him. BIG MISTAKE. Noted Astros thumper Kendrys Morales came up against Keuchel batting from the right side. After a little dancing on the outside corner, Keuchel left a breaking ball down and in, which Morales promptly deposited behind the left-center field wall. A three-run dinger put the Royals up 7-2 heading into the ninth inning.
Wade Davis came in for the ninth despite the five-run lead. He sent down the first two Astros without much protest. Then, George Springer. Springer lined a well-hit ball to right field that carried...and carried...and carried. The crowd, so raucous and loud throughout the game, was dead silent. Eerily silent. Paulo Orlando, a late-inning defensive substitution, jumped and crashed into the wall as he caught the third out. Only after he caught the ball could the crowd rip the silence to shreds.
This is the Royals team we saw last year. Confidence. Timely hitting. On to the ALCS.